The phrase Alternative energy implies that these energy sources are alternatives to nuclear and traditional fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, or natural gas. Alternative energy, therefore, is a catchall category of energy sources that proponents argue can replace traditional fossil fuels in daily life, while causing less harm to the environment.
Alternative energy is increasingly important for at least three reasons. First, fossil fuels are nonrenewable; eventually, they will be exhausted. The United States is already witnessing a decline in its petroleum production. In 1950, the United States was largely self-sufficient in fossil fuels, producing 32,562,667 billion Btus of energy. At the same time, Americans consumed 31,631,956 billion Btus of fossil fuels. The United States therefore enjoyed a slight fossil fuel surplus. Now, fossil fuel consumption in the United States far outstrips production. In 2006, the United States produced 56,032,329 billion Btus of fossil fuels, but consumed 84,760,343 billion Btus. Advocates of alternative energy argue that alternative energy sources need to be developed now, so that when fossil fuels are gone, there will be other dependable energy resources.
Second, many advocates of alternative energy argue that as oil production declines, Americans and others around the world will become increasingly reliant on foreign sources of oil. This will require heavy investments in the military to ensure that fossil fuels continue to flow, especially from politically unstable regions of the world such as the Middle East.
Third, alternative energy has received increased attention because of a scientific consensus that the average temperature of the planet is rising. Scientists argue that a leading cause of global warming is the emission of so-called greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, various nitrous oxides, hydro-fluorocarbons, sulfur oxides, and particulate matter.
These gases come from the combustion of fossil fuels in vehicles, in the production of electricity from coal or natural gas, and in many other processes.
Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are not inherently bad. In fact, these gases naturally occur in the atmosphere and help moderate the global climate to support living organisms, including humans. In this process, the Earth's surface is first warmed directly during the day by incoming solar radiation. At night, this energy is radiated back into the atmosphere as latent heat energy, some of which is absorbed by atmospheric gases such as carbon dioxide. The problem, say many scientists, is that the growing use of fossil fuels is increasing the concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases, which, in turn, increase the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb latent heat energy. The National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) notes that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased 35 percent 1750-2007. At the same time, the Earth's average temperature has increased between 1.1 degrees F to 1.6 degrees F (0.6 degrees C to 0.9 degrees C) and that warming continues at an accelerating rate. The only way to slow global warming is to reduce greenhouse gases. This means that the use of fossil fuels will have to be reduced.
Reducing the reliance on fossil fuels will not be easy. The United States relies on fossil fuels for 85 percent of its energy needs. Nuclear energy accounts for another 8 percent. Hence, only 7 percent of the energy consumed in the United States comes from renewable sources such as biomass, hydroelectric, wind, or solar power. Another way to look at the heavy reliance on fossil fuels is to see the amount of energy consumed in absolute terms—data show that Americans consumed more fossil fuels in 2006 than they did in 2002. However, renewable energy is playing a slightly larger role in the U.S. energy portfolio.
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